What is Turkey Doing in Africa? African Opening in Turkish Foreign Policy
What is Turkey Doing in Africa?
African Opening in Turkish Foreign Policy
Africa comes first among the most neglected regions of the Turkish foreign policy.. Developing relations with African countries was not a foreign policy priority for many years. As a result of this approach, we can neither talk about the presence of a systematic foreign policy towards African countries nor a desire to open up Turkish foreign policy to Africa until the adoption of the ‘Africa Action Plan’ in 1998 and the ‘Strategy for Developing Economic Relations with African Countries’ in 2003. Nevertheless, the relations between Turkey and Africa started to develop in 2005, which was announced as the ‘Africa Year,’ after standing at the minimum level for many years. This paper aims to analyse the main reasons behind Turkey’s recent interest in Africa and argues that a number of interrelated factors lies behind Turkey’s desire to develop relations with African countries. These factors can be summarised as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) non-permanent membership candidacy for the 2009-2010 period, the will to increase trade relations with African countries, Turkey’s efforts to become more active in international politics that is closely related to its broader eagerness to develop relations with the countries that were previously neglected in foreign policy and the increasing interest of the great powers in the continent. Although many points of Turkey’s Africa policy have been widely criticised, it is an important development that the negligence that dominated Turkey’s earlier approach towards African countries is not repeated. However, following a systematic and consistent foreign policy towards African countries is crucial for the future of both the bilateral and multilateral relations.
After the visit of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Somalia as a part of his Africa tour in January 2015, columnists of almost 10 different newspapers asked question of “What Turkey is doing in Africa?” Similar questions were voiced by many columnists after every step taken to increase the existing cooperation. For instance, after Erdoğan’s visit to Ethiopia and South Africa in 2005 as the then prime minister, headlines such as “Ethiopia?” or “What We Are Doing in Ethiopia?” were followed by similar ones such as “Where is Ghana?” and “What We Are Doing in Gabon?” after the visit of Abdullah Gül, the president of that time, to Ghana and Gabon in 2011. The reason behind such questions after every high-ranking official’s visit to the region is related to the lack of knowledge as well as interest on the side of the Turkish media –and the ministry of foreign affairs– on the Africa issue. It is also directly related to the Turkish-African relations that were kept at the minimum level until recently. This paper aims to discuss the main reasons behind Turkey’s recent interest in Africa and argues that Turkey’s will to develop relations with African countries is a result of many interrelated factors. These factors, which can be summarised as Turkey’s UNSC non-permanent membership candidacy for the period of 2009-2010, the will to increase trade relations with African countries as closely related to Turkey’s broader efforts to be more effective in international policy by developing relations with the countries that was previously neglected in foreign policy and the increasing interest of the great powers in the continent, will be discussed in detail in the forthcoming sections of this paper.
Since its foundation, the Republic of Turkey disregarded its relations with African countries within the framework of the ‘westernisation’ policy, one of the most important foreign policy principles of the country. In this sense, ‘westernisation’ and ‘modernisation’ were considered as synonymous terms; and developing relations with the western world, especially with European countries, became a part of the grand project of reaching to the level of contemporary civilisations. As a direct result of this policy, during the period of decolonisation when the colonies in Asia and Africa gained independence one after the other, Turkey did not recognise the independence of most of these countries for a long time in order to adopt the same policy along its Western allies. Mahmut Dikerdem, a retired ambassador who represented Turkey throughout 1950s and 1960s in many Middle Eastern and African countries, argues that Turkish authorities were not aware of the liberation movements in the colonies after the Second World War; and he claims that “The Black Africa Record of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was empty” during 1960s.
As a result of this understanding, we cannot neither talk about the presence of a systematic foreign policy regarding African countries nor an intention to open up Turkish foreign policy to Africa until the adoption of the ‘Africa Action Plan’ in 1998 and the ‘Strategy for Developing Economic Relations with African Countries’ in 2003. These documents, which are notably important in defining the African opening in Turkish foreign policy, were followed by the approval of ‘Africa Strategy Document’ in 2010. In the last 10 years, we witness that the earlier disregard of African countries has started to change and the ministry of foreign affairs has placed a particular importance on developing relations with Africa. As a result, 2005 was announced as the ‘Africa Year;’ and in the same year, Tayyip Erdoğan became the first Turkish Prime Minister who has ever visited the sub-Saharan Africa. Again, in 2008, Erdoğan became the first non-African leader who visited Somalia in the last 20 years. In 2012 and in 2015 –in the latter, as the president– he paid two more visits to Somalia. Erdoğan made an Africa Tour that includes three sub-Saharan Africa countries in 2013; and also Abdullah Gül has made four Africa Tours during his presidency. These successive visits to the sub-Saharan Africa countries have a particular importance considering the fact that no high-ranking official had ever visited the region until 2005.
As a result of the increasing interest in Africa, the number of embassies in the continent has also increased. While Turkey had just 12 embassies in Africa in 2009, the number of embassies increased to 39 in 2015. Consequently, the number of embassies of African countries in Turkey has also increased from 10 in 2009 to 31 in 2015. As a result of the Africa opening of Turkey’s foreign policy, Turkish Airlines now organises flights to more than 40 points in 28 African countries. Since the ‘Africa Action Plan’ and ‘Strategy for Developing Economic Relations with African Countries’ have started to give results in economic terms, bilateral and multi-lateral trade relations with African countries have also developed and starting with the year 1997, trade volume between Turkey and African countries has increased. In order to identify the methods that would further develop the relations with African countries, Turkey-Africa Summits have been organised in both Turkey and African countries; as a result of these summits, new cooperation strategies and action plans were developed. As a result of these developments, Turkey became an observant state of the African Union in 2005. In 2008, it became a strategic partner of the African Union and a non-regional member of the African Development Bank.
Turkish authorities state at every occasion that Turkey-Africa relations are based on a win-win policy and mutual cooperation and emphasise the non-colonial nature of Turkey’s historical relations with the continent. These statements underline that Turkey is not after the natural resources of the continent, and does not only pursue its own interests; rather, it gives importance to the equality principle in its relations with African countries. For instance, in 2010, Abdullah Gül stated that “We have never guarded only our own interests. We know that great powers ruined Africa in the past looking after their own interests. The international community should know that we can only become equal partners with Africa.” In 2007, Tayyip Erdoğan declared during the opening ceremony of 8th African Union Summit of the Heads of States and Governments in Addis Ababa that “Africa is the centre of our common future. Africa’s success will be the success of the humanity.” During a visit to Djibouti in early 2015, he also stated “We are not here for your natural resources. We are here because we are brothers.” Moreover, Abdullah Gül noted that “We are different from Europeans. We do not take away your raw resources. We make investments, and even bring qualified labour force and technology” at the meeting organised by the Türkiye İşadamları ve Sanayiciler Konfederasyonu (Confederation of Turkey Businessmen and Industrialists) (TUSKON) in Accra the capital of Ghana in 2011. However, we can claim that the prominent pioneer and the executive of the African opening of the Turkish foreign policy is the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who has been the head consultant of Erdoğan since 2002 and served as the minister of foreign affairs between 2009 and 2014.
In fact, the acceptance of Africa Action Plan corresponds to the period during which İsmail Cem was the minister of foreign affairs in 1998. Turkey, whose candidacy for the European Union was not confirmed during the Luxembourg Summit in 1997, started to seek for alternatives different from the Western world with the purpose to play a more active and constructive role in world politics. However, due to the instability of the coalition governments of that time, and the following economic crises, foreign policy issues were not a top priority. As the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) came to power with the 2002 legislative elections, the Africa issue has been brought to the agenda again, and at this time, the AKP officials, who had the sufficient opportunity and will, have started paying particular attention to Africa contrary to the previous governments. Among these high -ranking party officials, especially the opinions of Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is known as the architecture of the Turkish foreign policy during the AKP government, play a decisive role in determining the direction of foreign policy.
In his book “Strategic Depth” (2001) written –before he became the minister of foreign affairs, Davutoğlu states that Turkey needs to follow a more active and versatile foreign policy in order to re-enforce its position in international politics in the next century and to implement the objectives that will come with that position. Davutoğlu also discusses the obligation to change the perception towards the neglected regions –especially Africa– by emphasising that a country’s power cannot only be measured through its power projected in its near abroad, but also through its economic, cultural and diplomatic power in other regions. Even though foreign policy towards Africa towards Africa is mentioned in only a few pages in the book, we can claim that Davutoğlu started to give particular importance to the relations with Africa both as the head consultant to the prime minister and as the minister of foreign affairs. Davutoğlu also states that Africa is the most neglected region in Turkish foreign policy and criticises the previous governments’ disregard by emphasising the religious, commercial, and cultural relations established with African countries during the Ottoman Empire. According to Davutoğlu, in the current era, Turkey needs to review its Africa policy and introduce important changes in its foreign policy decision-making. However, it is clear that the change in the attitude towards Africa and the beginning of the increasing relations with African countries is not just related with Davutoğlu’s personal tendencies or academic opinions. Even though the effect of Davutoğlu’s opinions on shaping foreign policy cannot be ignored, African opening is a result of a number of interrelated pragmatic reasons.
Until 2000s, developing relations with African countries was not a priority of Turkish foreign policy; yet, it is known that many great powers were already following an active foreign policy in the continent. After the end of the Cold War, we can claim that the continent’s importance has started to decrease, especially for the USA and Russia. However, within a short period of time, after great powers such as China, Japan, India and Brazil moved their competition to Africa, the US and Russia also reclaimed their place in the hegemonic race in the continent, besides the European states that already had an established relations with African countries due to their colonial past in the continent. This situation, as it has happened through the world, it leads to obligation to review the African policy. We can claim that the great powers’ increasing interest in Africa, and their positions in the continent and their relations with the African countries are the main exogenous factors that determined the change in Turkey’s course of action towards Africa. However, there are some other reasons behind Turkey’s Africa opening and ergo developing its relations with African countries. The first of them is related with the UNSC non-permanent membership, which Turkey applied for the 2009-2010 term.
Turkey declared its candidacy for the UNSC non-permanent membership in 2003 and carried out an intensive lobbying activity for five years and established close diplomatic contacts with regional organisations and groups of countries with an aim to guarantee the votes of African countries. This five year period of candidacy corresponds to the period during which Turkey increased its relations with African countries for the first time. Yet, the support of African countries, which is the biggest regional group with its 54 members in the UN, was vitally important for Turkey for its UNSC nomination (When Turkey announced its candidacy, the African Group had 53 members. After 2011, with the involvement of South Sudan, it has increased to 54). Having established extensive diplomatic relations and having asked for support from African countries, Turkey was elected as a non-permanent member of the UNSC with the support of 151 out of 192 countries during the voting at the UN General Council in 2008.
Another reason behind Turkey’s growing attention to Africa is the desire to improve its trade relations with the countries in the region. Even though economic relations with the northern Africa had been going on for a long time at least compared to the sub-Saharan countries, thanks to the historical, cultural and religious bonds dating back to the Ottoman era, neither was Northern Africa one of Turkey’s traditional trade partners, nor was trade with this region at a considerable level at the beginning of 2000s. Economic relations with the region started to improve in the post-2003 period with the approval of the previously-mentioned Strategy for Developing Economic Relations with African Countries that was prepared by the Under-Secretariat of Foreign Trade. Following this period, many bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation and free trade agreements were signed with some African countries. As a result of this policy, Turkey’s foreign trade volume has increased by 600% not only with Northern Africa but also with the sub-Saharan countries after the Africa opening. For example, while the total trade volume was 3.5 billion dollars in 1997, right before the opening to Africa, it has increased to 20 billion in 2013. A major part of this increase corresponds to the period after 2005. Beginning from this period, Africa has not only offered important opportunities to Turkey in search of diversifying its foreign trade partners, but also become the saviour of Turkish exporters looking for alternative markets. In this sense, within the frame of trade relations with the region, contrary to great powers, Turkey aimed to access to the African market rather than importing the natural resources of the continent. As a result of the developing economic relations with African countries, in 2008, Turkey became one of the 20 trade partners of Africa and ranked among the top five countries that most invested in Africa, in 2011.
Even though Turkish-African business relations have significantly improved in recent years, Africa’s share in Turkey’s total trade is still marginal. While EU countries still continue to be the most important trade partners of Turkey, trade relations with the northern Africa countries are more significant compared to the sub-Saharan Africa countries. For example, while Africa’s share within total volume of imports was 2.4% in 2013, EU countries’ share was 36.7%. This share is slightly higher in export, where Africa’s share was 9.3%, while EU countries’ share was 41.5%. Whereas Turkey’s most important trade partners in the region are the North Africa countries, there is only one sub-Saharan country among its top five import partners (South Africa). The most dynamic sectors in the region are construction and infrastructure; however, construction companies are mostly active in the Northern Africa countries. For a long period of time, Turkish construction companies invested in important projects especially in Libya, Morocco and Algeria. For example, in 2011, more than half of the total exports of construction vehicles were conducted with the northern Africa countries. However, after the Arab Spring, Turkish firms whose projects were negatively affected especially in Libya, moved their attention to the middle and South Africa. For this reason, the Turkish Union of Contractors, with the support of the ministry of foreign affairs, organised the “Conference Series of sub-Saharan Africa Countries;” and the first conference was held in Ankara in 2013, with the title of “Opportunities in Mozambique’s Construction Sector.”
Another reason for Turkey’s growing attention to Africa is its desire to have a more active role in international politics. Many government officials underlined the importance of relations with Africa as a requirement of multidimensional foreign policy. For example, in a document discussing the main foreign policy priorities of Turkey issued in 2015, the ministry of foreign affairs argues that Africa is one of the strategic action areas for Turkey and the improved relations with the sub-Saharan countries particularly became a success story. Within the framework of the Africa opening, the relations with the region have developed in multiple fields; and as a result, in 2013, “Africa Opening” policy shifted to “Africa Cooperation Policy.” The very same document states that “Africa has a particular importance in our efforts of expanding our international political and economic impact beyond the nearby regions… Africa is expected to increase its weigh as a developing actor in the 21th century and to play a more active role globally.” In fact, it is vital for Turkey to develop its relations with African countries replacing its one-dimensional foreign policy, since Turkey strives to become a regional or global power with the capacity to lead and determine regional politics through a more active foreign policy.
Africa used to be one of the most neglected areas in Turkish foreign policy. Due to the reluctance for improving the relations with African countries and to lack of knowledge about the region in the past, Soner Aksoy, the president of commission for Turkish National Assembly’s Industry, Trade and Energy, asked the location of Gabon in relation to a cooperation agreement concluded with Gabon in 2003; and he was misinformed by bureaucrats. However, this situation has changed radically after 2000s, when Turkish foreign policy expanded to embrace Africa. For example, while Tayyip Erdoğan pointed out that Africa was going to be one of the most significant poles in the 21th century, Ahmet Davutoğlu claimed that the 21th century would be going to be Africa’s and Turkey’s century. The visits by the high-ranking Turkish officials to African countries, as well as the positive remarks of politicians, including prime minister, president and minister of foreign affairs, changed the media discourse and the academic interest about the Turkish-African relations. Also, the media coverage of Africa has started to change by a new perception of Africa as a strategic region that offers multiple political opportunities to Turkey, instead of framing the continent through hunger, poverty and civil wars. The academic attention has also increased towards Africa; especially in recent years, International Relations scholars published several studies both on the Turkish-African relations and on other special issues related to Africa. Overall, Africa can no longer be neglected by Turkey, which strives to diversify its foreign policy with an aim to increase its weigh in international politics and which consequently formulates a more dynamic, constructive and multidimensional foreign policy towards the previously disregarded regions.
However, Turkish foreign policy on Africa has been criticised in several aspects. A good example is Turkey’s inconsistent attitude towards the ‘Arab Spring,’ which started in December 2010 in Tunisia and spread to several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. For instance, Turkey’s neutral and passive reaction to the developments in Libya attracted criticism, especially given its completely different attitude towards the anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt during which Turkey called Mubarak to listen to the demands of citizens and later underlined the necessity of a regime change. At the beginning of the protests in Libya, Turkish authorities insisted on the significance of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya and showed reluctance to join to a NATO air operation within the no-fly zone. Some might claim that the reason behind Turkey’s attitude might be due to the 30,000 Turkish workers in Libya; however, even upon the return of these workers, Erdoğan announced that “Turkey is never and ever going to pull out its gun to Libyans.” Despite the humanitarian aid provided to Darfur, Turkey’s relations with Omar al-Bashir who has an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, have also been criticised as an example of Turkey’s inconsistent foreign policy in Africa. Indeed, Omar al-Bashir has been on official visits to Turkey over the last few years.
Turkey’s Darfur policy, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its prioritisation of predominantly-Muslim Somalia among other African countries raise the question that whether religion is an important factor in building relations with African countries or not. Erdogan received international criticism in 2009 before al-Bashir’s visit to Turkey with his statement: “There was no genocide in Darfur… A Muslim would never commit a genocide” before al-Bashir’s visit to Turkey. Erdogan’s three visits to predominantly Muslim Somalia as both the prime minister and president and hosting the 1st and 2nd Somalia Conferences that were co-organised with the UN also raised a question that whether Turkey’s policy in Somalia is solely related to humanitarian concerns or not.. Actually, until a short while ago, Gülen schools were considered as the predominant factor in establishing strong relations with African countries. This rhetoric has started to change after December 2013; and Erdoğan even called the African leaders to shut down such schools within their territories. All in all, it is a vital improvement that the ignorance dominated Turkey’s earlier approach towards African countries is not carried out today, however it is crucially important to adopt a consistent and systematic foreign policy towards Africa for the sake of both the bilateral and multilateral relations.
Dr. Elem Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu, International Relations Department, Yaşar University, İzmir
Please cite this publication as follows:
Eyrice, E. (April, 2015), “What is Turkey Doing in Africa? African Opening in Turkish Foreign Policy”, Vol. IV, Issue 4, pp.95-106, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8723)
Dikerdem, Mahmut. (1977). From the Third World (Memories of an Ambassador), Istanbul: Cem Yayınevi; Dikerdem Mahmut. (1977). Revolution years in the Middle East (Memories of an Ambassador), Istanbul: Istanbul Matbaası.
For detailed information about the Turkey’s relations with the sub-Saharan countries, please see the official site of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Turkish-African Relations.” [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
Yayman, Hüseyin. (2015). “From Dream to Reality: Erdoğan at Djibouti.” Vatan. January 25.
Aktaran, Afacan, İsa. (2012).“Africa Opening in Turkish Foreign Policy” Middle East Analysis. 4(46), p.17.
Sabah. (2007). “Erdoğan’s speech in Africa.” January 29.
Milliyet. (2011). “Let’s make chocolate out of Turkish nut and Ghana’s cacao” March 25.
Özkan, Mehmet. (2010). “What drives Turkey’s Involvement in Africa?” Review of African Political Economy. 37(126): 533-540.
As a result of the suspension of the eight chapters of the accession negotiations in 2006 and the resulting effect of damaged relations with the EU, Turkey started to seek for alternatives to European its foreign policy.
Taşpınar argues that the changing character of Turkish foreign policy during the Justice and Development Party era is a result of the ‘Neo-Ottoman’ tendencies and, a desire to be more active in especially the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans. Taşpınar, Ömer. (2012). “Turkey’s Strategic Vision and Syria.” The Washington Quarterly. 35(3): 127-140.
However, the same success could not be achieved in the elections for 2015-2016 UN Security Council non-permanent membership. Turkey competed with Spain in the second ballot but none of them received enough votes. In the third round, Turkey only got 60 votes against 132 votes of Spain. Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavusoğlu linked the results to the conjectural developments (Al Jazeera. (2014). “Turkey has not elected to UNSC.” October 16). However, he avoided giving a detailed explanation about these developments. After receiving a record high support for the 2008 elections, the failure in the 2014 elections can be seen as a result of the current foreign policy of Turkey. In recent years, Turkey has been criticised by Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt due to the problematic relations with its neighbouring states because of Turkish policies in Iraq and Syria and the support given to the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, 2008 elections were held when Turkish-Africa relations were at their peak, and therefore, the result was directly related to the support of African countries. Afacan even claimed that Turkey’s UNSC non-permanent membership was owed to the contributions of African countries. (p.15). After the 2008 elections, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Babacan stated that “Especially our efforts in Africa in recent years will provide us an advantageous position. Because Turkey is going to be in that Council as a country that understands Africa better.” Cumhuriyet. (2008). “Turkey has been elected as non-permanent member to” October 17.
For detailed information see: Ministry of Customs and Trade, “Official Statistics of Foreign Trade” [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
UNCTAD. (2010). “Economic Development in Africa 2020, South-South Cooperation: Africa and the New Forms of Partnership.” Geneva: UNCTAD, pp. 31-15 and United Nations. (undated). “Infrastructure Development: Within the Context of Africa’s Cooperation with New and Emerging Development Partners.” Office of the Special Adviser on Africa. p.82, [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
Ministry of Customs and Trade, “Official Statistics of Foreign Trade”
United Nations. (undated), p.80; Armağan, Zeynep. (2011). “Winning Sector in Africa: Construction” Management of Foreign Economic Relations and International Organizations. İzmir Chamber of Commerce, [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
Turkish Union of Contractors. (2011). “Analysis on the Construction Sector: Markets of Japan-North Africa- Middle East under Tsunami,” [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
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Turkish Grand Assembly General Secretariat. (2013). “Africa and the Activities of Turkish Contractors: from yesterday to today and from today to the future.” Gündem. Ankara, [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
Çavuşoğlu, Mevlüt. (undated) “Turkish Foreign Policy in 2015.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs. p.106, [Date Accessed 19 March 2015], Retrieved from:
For a detailed investigation of the reasons for Turkish foreign policy opening to Africa, please see: Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu, Elem. (2012). “Africa’s growing importance in Global and Turkish Politics and Turkish African Relations” Ankara Üniversitesi Afrika Çalışmaları Dergisi. 1(2): 59-94.
Devrim, Serdar. (2003). “Where is Gabon.” Hürriyet. March 7.
Official Site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu: “21th century is going to be Africa’s and Turkey’s century.” [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
Sabah. (2007). “Erdoğan’s Speech in Africa.” January 29.
Among many others, Ahmet Kavas ‘Africa: From the Past to Present’ (Kitabevi, 2005) and ‘Ottoman-African Relations’ (Tasarım Yayınları, 2006); ‘Bibliography of Africa: From Ottomans to Present’ edited by Zekeriya Kurşun (ORDAF Yayınları, 2013); ‘Africa in the Global Politics I’ edited by İsmail Erdoğan (Nobel Akademik Yayıncılık, 2014) and Mehmet Özkan’s several articles on Africa can be seen as examples for such publications. [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:
Zaman. (2011). “Erdoğan: We are not going to pull our weapons to Libya.” March 22.
Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu, pp.89-91.
Ntvmsnbc. (2009). “Erdoğan: There wasn’t a genocide in Darfur” November 8.